Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What can a southerner's tragic sense of life teach a northerner?

I still remember when a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh handed me a copy of Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins one summer. A novel. I hadn't read many novels to that point. A few here and there, but not many. I was a grad student in philosophy. What did I want with fiction? I remember it became my recreational reading for a few weeks that summer, and at first I wondered what hit me. I had never ever read anything quite like this. His antihero characters were somehow captivating, despite all their banalities and flaws. There was an unexpected transparency about them -- like the guy (in another Percy novel) who argued with his psychologist, whom he was seeing because of the guilt he felt over an affair, that guilt was unavoidable after all, because he was guilty.

Love in the Ruins unfolded in its bizarre southern setting with antihero Thomas More musing over how much simpler life in the north was. To use a loose analogy, the northern mind is a bit like war movies made before Vietnam: think of The Sands of Iwo Jima, The Longest Day, or even The Green Beret, right at the outset of the war. The southern mind is more like Platoon, or Apocalypse Now. To read this as a simple contrast between absolutism and relativism would be to miss my point, because the northern mind is perhaps even more relativistic than the southern. No, it has to do with the level of reflection, the complexity of life and its existential questions, what Miguel de Unamuno called the Tragic Sense of Life. The North, despite its fashionable postmodern conceits, is more at ease with the rationalist projects of the Enlightenment than the South. The South is an untamed Faulknerian 'force of nature' that will destroy you, abandon you to the shallow puddle of your autoerotic self-indulgences, or show you how painfully deep the proverbial rabbit hole goes. Percy shows us how deep, and he does this by first hooking the reader unawares (why do I think of Kierkegaard's Diary of a Sedeucer?) into confronting the deep corners of his individual soul and the collective American psyche that he has never dared or even imagined examining.

Amy Welborn, "Walker Percy at 100" (The Catholic World Report, May 27, 2016) -- a good introduction.

[Hat tip to JM]


Chris Garton-Zavesky said...


I tried to get through one of Percy's books, but put it down part way through because I found it so troubling. Are all his books full of such rough language and descriptions as (I think it's called) Lancelot? Having tried to read it I have to ask, "Why is he considered such a great writer"?

Pertinacious Papist said...


Like Soren Kierkegaard and Evelyn Waugh, Percy is a terrific writer; but also like them, he is far from simple. Kierkegaard wrote under pseudonyms from three conflicting but dialectically (in an anti-Hegelian sense) related viewpoints: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. What he aims to do is something Pascalian. Pascal, you may recall, was called a sublime misanthrope, because, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he wrote from a perspective "Under the Sun" in which all is vanity and there is no meaning beyond the grave -- but in order to provoke his readers and friends (mostly rich gamblers who didn't give a fig about their religion) to consider the stakes. Just as Pascal posed a counter-'wager', so Kierkegaard poses stark alternatives, forcing the reader to think. The womanizing Don Juan is not animated by attraction to the positive virtues of the woman he sees, but by repulsion from boredom with the woman he's with. Which leads to questions about how romance can be preserved in the stable ethical relationship of marriage. Etc.

Waugh lived a hideous hedonistic life before his Catholic conversion in 1930, so his novels often reflect that jaded world. His most celebrated classic, Brideshead Revisited, is (from a superficial secular perspective) a dismal novel about a dysfunctional Catholic family falling apart through affairs, divorce, and alcoholism, but for anyone with the least religious sensitivity, one sees the "twitch upon the thread" (an analogy of God as a fisher of men, letting his catch swim to the ends of the earth but then reeling him in), and that the whole story is saturated with God's grace undying grace.

Percy's novels are full of dismal failures as well, Tom More, who eventually gets imprisoned for selling uppers to truck drivers, a lapsed Catholic who sleeps around; but Percy's objective is to get his jaded secular readers to identify with these anti-heroes and then to provoke them to think about their own lives. One of his strangest and most interesting books is LOST IN THE COSMOS: THE LAST SELF-HELP BOOK, which reads as a series of questionnaires in which the reader is asked to check the box beside the paragraph that most accurately describes him. For example, one simple alternative is this: (1) I am basically sincere, a good person, my intentions are generally benevolent, I am friendly and helpful toward others, etc., etc.; and (2) I basically have mixed motives and even my seeming generosity is compromised by self-serving intentions; I am basically selfish, conceited, hypocritical. Choose #1 or #2.

That's way over-simplified, and there are generally many more alternatives. It's complicated. But it's highly provocative.

There's no easy way to read these authors. You have to immerse yourself in them, and then they hook you. I doubt that they lead to straightforward conversions to the Christian faith (LOST IN THE COSMOS was promoted by Playboy magazine); but I'm quite sure a person can't get hooked on Percy without being compelled to think deeply about himself and the state of his soul -- what secularists would call his 'existential condition.'

Not for everybody, certainly; but certainly excellent for some in our post-modern era.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Chris, You might enjoy some of his essays. He has two books of fairly 'deep' reflective essays on language and the human condition. Posthumously there's another book of his essays out recently, which is quite good on a more popular, often humorous, level. As for his novels, I would start with LOVE IN THE RUINS, then read the sequel, which he wrote much, much later, THE THANATOS SYNDROME. The latter starts slowly. The first third of the book is hard to get through. But they it picks up, and there are some amazing twists and turns and observations along the way, some prophetic, even apocalyptic. But, again, I recognize he's not everyone's cup of tea. You have to be willing to read about people who use bad language, are sexually permissive, may break the law, etc. But there's another dimension to it all as well. I wouldn't recommend such books to young seminarians or young boys. To jaded old coots, yes; or to seasoned sailors of life with a sense of humor, taste for irony, and a strong nose for grace in strange places.